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The Overberg is not for sissies. Paddling on Zoetendalsvlei

Text and photos: Karen Watkins. (First published Cape Times) Article from the Experience Overberg Issue 1.

Have you ever asked yourself how you came to be in the midst of madness? Climbing onto Titanic II should have been warning enough. With one-metre high waves and the wind whipping up white caps no wonder I felt apprehensive.

No high seas for this harem of women. Instead here we were in the middle of the country's second largest coastal plain freshwater lake

No high seas for this harem of women. Instead here we were in the middle of the country’s second largest coastal plain freshwater lake. Near the southern tip of Africa and on the Agulhas Plains; the other is at St Lucia, way up the coast. At five-kilometres long and with an inlet but no outlet, it’s connected to the Indian Ocean by a tidal estuary.

“The Overberg is not for sissies,” said our able-seaman Cape Union Mart Hiking Club guide Lionel Whatley. The reputation of this charismatic man had preceded him, a story himself, covered in colourful flags and labels not only on his clothing but also on his car.

The day started off like any other regular day in Africa. Having driven a short distance from Struisbaai, we left the tar to follow a dirt track past piles of thatching reeds. Passing a farm, Lionel called the farmer to let him know we were passing through. Avoiding cows we arrived on the eastern edge of the vlei only to get stuck in soft sand. This wasn’t surprising considering that Lionel was driving a Toyota Conquest and towing a trailer covered in canoes.

Unfazed and manoeuvring the biggest moon bag known to man, or woman, Lionel deftly unloaded the craft. “Trust me, transport is my business,” promised this driver training consultant as he introduced us to a Penguin, a Trapper and the aforementioned Titanic II.

Turns out that the Penguin is a Mohawk, used on the Orange River. The Trapper is Lionel’s favourite despite this traditional Victorian shaped boat having apparently sunk when on its maiden voyage in Fisherhaven. This, without having struck an iceberg, let alone a spilt ice block from a passing leisure craft at sunset. “It’s not a sea-going vessel,” he explained.

Smilingly carrying kayaks and loading safety gear, Lionel told us it’s a privilege to come here. Something I already knew having been here a few weeks before. Hearing the vlei was covered in flamingoes I wanted to return. The birdlife around the vlei is said to include about 250 species general to the area as well as approximately 30 waterfowl, waders and sea birds. But not today.

“Hold the paddle like this and put on these pdf’s,” he explained pointing to personal floating devices (pdf, aka life-jacket) and holding the paddle shoulder width apart. “Don’t hold your camera because if you drop it it’s gone forever. There’s always a risk level but here it’s not high,” he quipped.

Lionel’s final words “keep together” rang in our ears as we climbed on board. My co-pilot was in front and piloting the boat as waves washed overboard. Trying to paddle ahead, the boat had a mind of its own and insisted on being side-on to metre-high waves. “So that’s what the bale bucket is for,” was amongst other thoughts of abandoning ship and calling SOS.

Somehow miraculously we made it to a clump of reeds to re-group. But not for long. One of the other canoes started drifting away from us. With competition from the wind, calling them was hopeless. Would we ever see them again? Debating our predicament we ate and talked while I took pictures.

But we couldn’t stay forever and so we rowed in the direction we last saw our fellow paddlers. Faced with a dense wall of reeds someone mentioned they were going to the Okavango for a holiday. Pulling our way through reeds, surprisingly we found them, one of them in the water and towing the canoe. After much debate we made for a headland. Crossing an open gully we did not expect them to make it through what was probably deep water. But they made it.

What to bring Canoes and safety equipment are provided. Bring your own hiking and swimming gear and your own food and drinks.

Next thing my fellow paddler was out of the boat and cutting a gap through the wall of reeds. Would we see her again? Had she escaped to normality? No, she returned, encouraging us to follow, which we did. And so it was that we came to a very wet and muddy dry land. Leaving the canoes we walked back to the vehicles.

But that is not where this story ends. We awoke to a still and cloudless day; the previous howling gale was nothing more than a bad memory. With early morning fog and dew still glinting off the grass, we retraced our steps to find the canoes where we had left them the previous day.

Back into the vlei through a gap in the reeds we rowed across the placid mirror-like water under a turquoise sky. The rowing was bliss, our spirits soared and so did the birdlife.

Loading the canoes Lionel explained why the Overberg is not for sissies. He says the original settlers of this area were survivors of shipwrecks – and they were tough. Only three out of five ox wagons made it over the Van Der Stel pass, near Bot River. While one in five perished with their occupants losing all their stuff because the mountains are so steep.

Would we be back? You bet. All of us put our names down for his next adventure. But I can’t help but wonder where all the guys are…

For more information about paddling trips on Zoetendalsvlei contact Lionel Whatley on 082 340 5385. For self catering accommodation contact Michael van Bredar on 082 887 2373.

Karen Watkins is the author of Off the Beaten Track and Adventure Hikes in the Cape Peninsula.

More info on the Overberg area



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